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Dust and Stars, My First Sermon for Beit Simcha


Shabbat Shalom. This is an exciting, extraordinary Sabbath, the very first service of our new Congregation Beit Simcha. On this Shabbat of Lech Lecha, when God first called to Abram and Judaism truly began, we are starting on our own path at Beit Simcha as a new community of prayer, study, righteous action and caring. It is a great gift and a privilege to be able to do so, to start fresh with a group of dedicated and devoted friends to build a special community.

I am personally honored and profoundly grateful for this opportunity, and I cannot adequately thank those who have supported me through a challenging and complex period, and who believe that the time is now ripe for this great effort. It is truly wonderful to be able to join with you all tonight, and to know that it is truly just the beginning.

In our Torah portion of Lech Lecha from Genesis our great ancestor Abram and his wife Sarai went to a new place to create the future home for all of their descendants. In the Torah Abraham and Sarah went west; now we are going northwest; perhaps the difference is not so great.

My close friend, Rabbi Richard Agler, shared this fact: the only American President not to blame his problems on the previous Administration was… George Washington, the very first president of the United States. He, like I, and our excellent congregational president Craig Sumberg, had no predecessor. I have to say that there is a certain responsibility knowing that we cannot blame anyone but ourselves for anything that goes wrong. But there is a refreshing freedom in that. We will make our own congregation, and build our own community. We may make mistakes—we are human, we will make some mistakes—but we will also work always to improve and to build, to do so creatively and innovatively. It is an incredibly powerful, exciting prospect.

It has been about thirteen months since I have had the privilege of leading Shabbat services here in Tucson. That hiatus was an imposed one, but it has provided the opportunity to decide just what I personally believe a synagogue should be, and what kind of relationship a rabbi and congregation should have. More importantly, it has led to some deep reflection on what a congregation, and Jewish community, can be.

My friends, the beginning of something brand-new is an occasion for celebration. In Judaism we have many rituals that rejoice in the new: brisses, baby namings, consecrations, weddings, conversion ceremonies, the beginning of each of our many festivals. I wonder which of these might be the most appropriate analogy for tonight. Although every one of these celebrations is covenantal, based in a shared responsibility to create goodness and holiness, they differ in quality and experience. Which ritual is appropriate for us to mirror tonight in our experience of beginning? Is it a baby naming, a consecration, a wedding, a conversion, a new festival?

To find the answer, I turned again to our Torah portion of Lecha Lecha. There, at the conclusion of the sedrah, Abraham was instructed to circumcise himself, the very first bris, brit milah. By his own hand, with a flint knife. While brit milah is certainly a powerful and important mitzvah, a central aspect of Jewish identity, I must admit to some resistance to seeing this as the correct ritual with which to begin a new congregation. It cuts just a little too close to home—sorry—and as many of us know from personal experience, synagogue politics can, at times, truly cut like a knife.

No, I hope that we are closer to a different ideal for our congregational beginning: the joy and celebration, the Simcha, of a wedding. There are several reasons this seems like the appropriate ceremony to reflect in our service tonight. Weddings are about hope and promise, the possibility to create a family based on love and mutual caring. A wedding is a brit, a clearly covenantal relationship, the support, respect, honesty and trust that must be shared by both members of a marriage to enable it to flourish. Weddings are also the most complete Simcha we have, a time to truly celebrate life and the commitment people are making to one another. Weddings are a way to reflect love, in their best way, selfless love. And wedding ceremonies are filled with blessings.

It is that concept of community, of commitment, and always of celebration, that Congregation Beit Simcha will embrace. Tonight we begin with great hope and promise, and we seek always to see the world not through the dark lens of our fears but through the bright vision of our hopes, to see the good that can be and that we can bring. In our congregation we will be part of a brit a mutual covenant to assist each other, to demonstrate trust and honesty as we build our synagogue. We will strive to be, constantly, a Jewish community that reflects the best of ourselves in our interactions, our prayer, our study and our dedication to improving our world. And we will seek to do so, as our name testifies, in great joy and with selfless love. We hope to fill our lives with blessings.

In Lech Lecha, several times God makes a promise to Abraham: although there are only two of you now, God says, just you and Sarah and you have no children, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, see if you are able to count them” and then God promises “So shall your seed be.”

At Beit Simcha we cannot yet make that same promise for our congregational membership, but I can promise that we will grow. And we will do so because our congregation will constantly offer the finest example of Judaism that we can. And there is nothing more life-affirming, and more inspiring, than the best of our own great tradition, its treasure house of knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, creativity and purpose.

That promise, to make us like the stars of heavens, is the second such pledge God has made to Abraham; earlier in Lech Lecha, God told him he would have descendants as extensive as the dust of the earth, too numerous to enumerate. These are great promises of growth and flourishing and the ultimate success of this little experiment in belief and devotion, this Jewish people project.

But these two promises raise a little conundrum: So which one is it, exactly, that we will become, dirt or celestial orb, in Hebrew afar or cochav? Are we, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, to be like dust or stars? Are we the lowest particles blown by the wind or are we brilliant, shining lights in the heavens?

Physicists tell us that, in practical terms, we are actually both. For when the universe began everything was made up of energy and particles, photons and electrons and clouds of gas uniting to form stars. And then those stars condensed and collided and sometimes exploded. The matter released, the dust of those tremendous collisions and explosions, provided the building material for absolutely everything in the universe—including, eventually, human beings. As my friend Danny Matt says in God and the Big Bang, “We, along with everything else, are literally made of stardust.” Who knew that when Joni Mitchell sang that phrase long ago she was actually, practically correct: we truly are stardust.

That is true of us individually, physically, but it is also true of us in a more complex, more human sense. We, each of us, have the capacity to act with great and sacred selfless devotion, to be stars, and we, each of us, have the ability to be low and mean, to wallow in the mud. We, each of us, all of us have the potential to be both “evil in thought and action” in the words of the Confucian scholar Xunzi (“Sun-zhee”) or, in the words of Shakespeare and Psalm 8, “express and admirable,” “crowned in glory and honor.” We can be dust or star; we have both within us.

That is just as true of groups of us, and of congregations. We can do wonderful things together—and I promise, we will. But more importantly it is our promise at Beit Simcha that we will seek to be the best version of ourselves, to reach for the stars rather than to wallow in the dust. We know that we are each special, unique, sacred and that Judaism has the capacity to give our lives beauty, meaning, depth, purpose and holiness. We also know that as a dedicated congregation we can do even more, so much more, and together can give our lives more blessings and joy, more simcha, and work together to improve our community and our world.

I know that some of you may want to know what I have been doing over the past 13 months. I will share more next week, in this same improvised sanctuary at this same time, about some of the things that I have learned over this year and change, and over this year of change, of challenge and resiliency. It will be a privilege to share with you experiences that took place here in Tucson and in places distant and strange and wonderful, from North Carolina to Poland to Prague to China to England. But tonight we begin fresh, right here, right now, with joy.

Lech Lecha meiartzecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha, Abram was commanded by God, go to the place that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation and you will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Our ancestor was given a great and compelling mission, a powerful charge to forge a new path. May God give us the ability to work together on our own new path, and continue the sacred steps we have begun tonight in our journey at Congregation Beit Simcha. And may it all be blessed with the simcha shel mitzvah, the joy of commandment. Please join me, again, in the words of the prayer for all good and new things: Shehecheyanu.

 

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